There’s a quirky, indie comedy vibe that initially laces the opening minutes of All My Puny Sorrows that deceptively suggests what will take place over the coming 103 minutes will be an airier approach to incredibly sensitive material. Character names are unusual – to say the least – and the dialogue is heightened, presented in a manner that very much speaks to the “too cool” trope of not sounding remotely organic. Yet, writer/director Michael McGowan (basing off Miriam Toews‘ novel of the same name) manages to earn honest conversations about the delicate topics at hand – namely depression, mental health and suicide.
Owning McGowan’s dialogue in a masterful fashion, Alison Pill dominates the film as Yoli, a writer in the midst of a volatile divorce. Whilst not exactly the black sheep of the family, she very much has put herself in the metaphorical shadow of her sister, Elf (Sarah Gadon), a world famous concert pianist who, despite her seeming success, is battling bouts of depression. Yoli’s gradual unwinding and Elf’s admission (and subsequent attempt) of wanting to commit suicide unfortunately ring all-too-familiar for their mother, Lottie (Mare Winningham), who lost her husband (Donal Logue) to similarly endangering mental health issues.
The generational cycle of trauma centres McGowan’s film, and whilst it would’ve been easy for the narrative to fall on melodramatic inclinations, the all-too topical conversation surrounding the assistance of a suicidal person is ultimately what the film wishes to entertain. Those on the outside looking in, even medical professionals, can’t grasp the mindset of someone trapped under their own depressive nature, and All My Puny Sorrows, even with its stylised dialogue, quite effortlessly translates that isolation; “You have a low-grade understanding of despair”, Elf so tellingly informs Yoli in one of their many heated conversations.
There’s such emotional honesty here that the exaggeratingly aware dialogue – as supremely as it is performed – can’t help but feel like an undoing of such raw material. It may keep audiences at a distance, but there’s still such intrigue and insight into trauma flitting within the discourse that it’s more readily forgivable than not; the film also knows when to strike with more comedic aspects, with one particular sequence involving Yoli’s verbal discharge at a man expressing over-concern to his motor-vehicle earning as many laughs as it does acknowledging hard truths.
As inauthentic as some of the exchanges throughout are, there’s never a doubt as to how authentic McGowan’s view is. This isn’t pleasant material, and viewing could certainly be triggering for certain parties, but the integrity that it’s been created under and the undeniable powerhouse turn from Pill means these dejections remain anything other than underdeveloped.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
All My Puny Sorrows is screening as part of this year’s Toronto Film Festival, which is being presented both in-person and virtually between September 9th and 18th, 2021. For more information head to the official TIFF page.